One of the favourite rhetorical flourishes of the hardline Anglican right is to claim that the leadership of the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church is a heretic-ridden bastion of heterodoxy. They have their favourite whipping boys, of course: John Spong (formerly Bishop of Newark, now retired) in the United States and Michael Ingham (Bishop of New Westminster) in Canada.
Now, personally, I've never been that impressed with John Spong's theological writings. And while I found Ingham's Rites for a New Age quite useful (it's where I first discovered the concept of post-Christendom) , most of the rest of his stuff I've read has left me cold as well. As a result, I have no particular dog in the fight about the orthodoxy or heterodoxy of either John Spong or Michael Ingham. In fact, if anything, I lean towards the possibility that the right may have a case to make.
Thing is, serious accusations like "heresy" deserve a serious forum for discussion and resolution. This is particularly so in the Anglican tradition which has always allowed for a range of understanding on most (and possibly all) theological questions. Elizabeth I famously remarked that she had "no desire to make windows into men's souls." Thus, in our tradition, the focus has been on conformity to authorized liturgies rather than to confessional definitions. (And even on liturgics, we've allowed a broad range of practice.)
So, IF John Spong and Michael Ingham are heretics, what should be done about it?
If you are on the Anglican Hard Right, it seems, then Spong and Ingham should be slandered in books, articles and blogs and generally used as a whipping boy to discredit North American Anglicanism in the eyes of credulous conservatives in England, Africa and elsewhere.
Certainly the last thing the Anglican Hard Right would ever want would be for either of their convenient bogeymen have to answer the wildest accusations laid against them.
Over the past 30 years or more (Spong became a bishop in 1976, Ingham in 1994), the irreconcilable right wing have had it in their capacity to initiate charges of heresy against Spong and Ingham (and anyone else they didn't like) in the respective canonical processes of the American and Canadian Churches. Yet they did not.
The reason isn't hard to fathom.
A heresy trial was a lose-lose proposition for those seeking to destroy the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada.
A heresy trial would have meant that Spong and Ingham would have been able to describe for themselves what the oft-quoted and oft-maligned passages of their books and articles actually were intended to mean - and in many cases this would not have matched the shrieking hysteria the irreconcilables read into them at every opportunity. In essence, A heresy trial would have forced Spong's and Ingham's detractors to be accountable no less than Spong and Ingham.
A heresy trial would inevitably have one of two outcomes. Neither of these outcomes was particularly helpful to the agenda of destruction.
If Spong / Ingham were cleared by the court, the mass of moderate Anglicans would probably have accepted the finding without much more than a shrug. Sure, the bundists would have been able to accuse the entire heirarchy of heresy then - but that wouldn't have seemed very credible beyond their already-angry base. It would have been useful with that small audience, but it would have severely circumscribed their already limited growth potential.
Even worse for the schismatics would have been a finding that Spong or Ingham were guilty, for it would undeniably demonstrate that (after due process) the American and Canadian Churches were more than prepared to deal with heterodox teaching if it were proven (note the word proven) to exist. That would have cut yet another prop out from under the extremists' discredited narrative.
So instead, the schismatics have opted for the easy way out. Slander is more effective than an open process of investigation and judgement. Instead of formally charging Spong, Ingham (or any of the other hundreds of heretics they claim exist), they simply scream "heretic" as often and as loudly as possible.
Quotations - often out of context - are spun with the worst possible interpretation. Isolated incidents are treated as though they reflect the norm. The truth is crucified on the altar of right wing spin.
One of my favourites was the bizarre accusation that the Millennium Development Goals had replaced Jesus at the centre of Episcopal worship. The "evidence" was a picture which showed a celebration of the Eucharist in a hotel meeting room, clearly at the end of a synod or other Church meeting. An MDG poster happened to be on the wall behind the celebrant - and had probably been hanging on that same wall for a couple of days.
This is a technique the religious right has learned from the secular right. This is the false gospel of Karl Rove. The Good News of Jesus Christ is set aside for tea-bagging and swiftboating. And the sensible policy of Elizabeth I is replaced with ecclesiastical McCarthyism.
Here's Eddie Izzard on religious extremism - and how Inquisitions are alien to Anglicanism. (Language Warning)